“The free world needs a reliable source” were some of CNN host Brian Stelter’s final words on his last show on Sunday—three days after CNN decided it didn’t, canceling his show in the most dramatic change in its quest to move toward the center.
The network’s final episode of Reliable Sources, its longest-running program, dedicated each block to the importance of a free press in a battered democracy and featured segments with journalists Carl Bernstein, Brian Karem, and a panel of media reporters. Stelter said he wanted the episode to return to the show’s historical mission of examining the press, noting its impact in journalism classrooms.
“The thing about TV is it’s fleeting,” Stelter said in his opening monologue. “A lot of it is not meant to be remembered. but this program transcended that…Founding host Bernard Kalb and Rick Davis said this program was meant to be a critical lens on the media—such a special thing, a critical lens on the media.”
That critical lens, however, did not seem to fit the new CNN under construction by network boss Chris Licht and his corporate overseers, Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav and key board member John Malone. Stelter’s show was canceled on Thursday, a shock move that prompted concerns for CNN’s editorial direction under the new Warner Bros. Discovery banner.
Those concerns bled into Stelter’s show, which he has hosted since 2013 and has built a brand around through a nightly newsletter and podcast. Insider’s media reporter Claire Atkinson pondered on Sunday whether Malone, a right-leaning billionaire, was responsible for his ouster.
“He’s a businessman. He’s looking at where the money and audience is,” Atkinson said. “The viewership on the left is split between CNN and MSNBC, and the viewership on the right is all at Fox News. They have a bigger audience, lots of money, and perhaps he's saying ‘If we shift a little bit this way, maybe we'll get that, too.’”
Malone denied any involvement with Stelter’s firing to The New York Times in the immediate aftermath on Thursday, claiming he has little to do with the network even as he admitted he wanted CNN to adopt a more “centrist” tone.
He elaborated on those thoughts in a Times interview published Sunday, admitting a less partisan tone would help draw in more advertisers (and, in turn, money) and boost ratings in the long run. CNN’s profits dipped under $1 billion this month, according to the Times, for the first time since 2016, and it has already seen the departure of top legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin.
“I am an American,” Malone told the paper. “I do believe that these organizations have a duty to try and bring the country together a little bit, instead of trying to exploit differences endlessly.”
Stelter refused to speculate on Malone’s involvement in his show’s cancellation or CNN’s future direction during the last episode, though he made sure to thank those involved in producing his show—including the network’s former CEO, Jeff Zucker, along with Licht, who ultimately canned him.
Stelter did make sure to acknowledge Malone’s points on partisanship, however indirectly, in his final send-off.
“It is not partisan to stand up for decency and democracy and dialogue. It’s not partisan to stand up to demagogues. It’s required—it’s patriotic,” Stelter said. “We must make sure we don't give platforms to those lying to our faces. But we also must make sure that we’re representing the full spectrum of debate and representing what is going on in the country and the world. That’s why CNN needs to be strong. That’s why I believe CNN will always be strong.”
Stelter affirmed that media coverage would continue under senior media reporter Oliver Darcy, including its influential nightly newsletter. What it will look like, however, remains uncertain, as The Daily Beast previously reported Licht’s plans to introduce more, potentially unpopular changes.
“This is a time of change, and I know that it’s unsettling,” Licht told staffers in a meeting Friday. “There will be more changes and you might not understand it or like it all.”